NASA 747 scans southern sky

Airborne telescope flies out of New Zealand

July 23, 2013

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy is mounted in a highly modified Boeing 747, fitted with an open door to the atmosphere and pressure barriers that protect passengers and crew from the elements at 45,000 feet. NASA photo.

A Boeing 747 modified with a huge door that opens wide, in flight, to give a 100-inch telescope a clear view of the sky is plying southern air routes out of Christchurch, New Zealand, to gather images, its first operational deployment.

The 747SP is dubbed SOFIA—the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy—and has been in development for several years.

The project and the mission are jointly funded by NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR. A German-designed infrared spectrometer has been attached to the telescope for the first active deployment of the system. The first flight launched July 18, and missions are planned through Aug. 1. "SOFIA's deployment to the Southern Hemisphere shows the remarkable versatility of this observatory, which is the product of years of fruitful collaboration and cooperation between the U.S. and German space agencies," said Paul Hertz, director of NASA's Astrophysics Division in Washington, in a news release. "This is just the first of a series of SOFIA scientific deployments envisioned over the mission's planned 20-year lifetime."

A crew of 60 technicians, scientists, and engineers (protected by a massive pressure door that isolates the telescope chamber from the rest of the aircraft) are working on the various missions, flown by two shifts of NASA flight crews.  

Jim Moore

Jim Moore | Online Associate Editor, AOPA

AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.